Student protests fizzle as France turns corner on crisis

Nationwide protests Tuesday against labor reforms fizzled for the first time in more than a month, after French President Jacques Chirac caved in to pressure from angry students and unions and jettisoned a youth jobs measure.

The protesters' victory, coupled with spring vacations, depleted turnout at marches by students who had hoped to capitalize on the momentum and force the government to withdraw other reforms too.

Scattered blockages were reported around the country by students using unusual methods to make their voices heard but, in contrast to earlier protests, no violence was reported.

Meanwhile, in the National Assembly, the last act of the weeks-long drama was being played out Tuesday night as lawmakers open debate on a four-measure package to replace the much maligned "first job contract."

The new plan was expected to pass the lower house before its spring recess starts Friday, but might not make it to the Senate until May, after the break, several parliamentary officials indicated.

Unlike the contested law, the new measure is but an extension of earlier laws in place. Significantly, it is directed only at disadvantaged students like those who rioted in largely immigrant big city suburbs last fall.

The measure withdrawn Monday had applied to anyone under 26, and students feared it would curtail coveted job protections. It was meant to encourage hiring by allowing employers to fire without cause during a two-year trial period.

But it also was an effort by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to introduce some flexibility into France's rigid labor laws to prep the economy for an increasingly competitive world.

Just 2,300 students marched in northeast Paris, according to police compared to 84,000 people counted at a protest a week ago that drew 1 million participants nationwide.

Only the most unrelenting took to the streets to press for the withdrawal of an entire package of equal opportunity laws voted in response to the fall riots, reports AP.


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